Let’s start out with the fact that I loved this book. I read it in one sitting on my iPad, and had no idea it was almost 500 pages because the pages just flew.
If the title seems familiar, it is because it was taken from a very famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
This is a book about racism and inclusiveness. Written by a white, privileged woman mostly for other white, privileged women and anyone else who likes a good read with a lesson. There is a strong message here and Picoult delivers it without hitting anyone over the head, but rather by showing, more than telling, if that makes sense.
Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse in New Haven, Connecticut. She grew up in Harlem, the daughter of a maid who pushed her to be more. Ruth was a smart girl who ended up with a scholarship to the Dalton School, followed by college and finally nursing school at Yale. She is a bright, dedicated nurse who takes pride in her work; in fact, she thinks of it as a calling.
Until a white supremacist family demands she be taken off the care of their newborn son. A note is placed in his file that states no African Americans are allowed to touch the child. This is a small hospital and the note hurts. But Ruth is a pro, so when an emergency takes the other duty nurses to the operating room leaving her in charge of watching the baby after his circumcision, she resents it but knows she has no choice. And then the unthinkable happens.
The baby appears to be in respiratory distress. Does Ruth try and save the baby, ignoring a direct order from her supervisor? The child dies, and the family decides that Ruth is the reason. The hospital is happy to have someone to blame that leaves them in the clear, and Ruth is arrested and charged with murder.
Ruth lost her husband in Afghanistan and has struggled to raise her son. He’s at the age where he is applying for college and the only money she has is tied up in his college fund, so she has no choice but to use the public defender as counsel.
Kennedy is a white woman, married to a doctor and able to do the work she loves – she also has a calling. She’s never tried a murder case but something about Ruth just makes her want to try, and she does. Along the way, Kennedy and Ruth become friends, and they both learn quite a bit from each other.
We also learn about white supremicsits like Turk, the father of the baby, and how they are recruited, trained and sometimes even have their lives turned around again.
All of these characters are fully dimensional which totally draws the reader in. There are major themes about parenting, the law, power, privilege and race. A lot of it is very uncomfortable to read, and I admit to crying more than once. It feels like an important book, and was extremely thought provoking but more than that, I needed to talk about it. As I was reading it, I told my husband about it, my daughter, my boss and my co-workers. Book clubs take heed, you will not want to miss this one. In fact, the publisher has thoughtfully provided a readers’ guide already.
I loved this book and will be reading it again. Picoult’s publicist had sent me an email about it, that said, in part, “Some books leave you thinking. This one gets you talking.” It’s gotten me talking for sure and I have a feeling I won’t be shutting up anytime soon.
Don’t miss it.
11/16 Stacy Alesi AKA the BookBitch™
SMALL GREAT THINGS by Jodi Picoult. Ballantine Books (October 11, 2016). ISBN 978-0345544957. 480p.